Tonawanda News

November 25, 2013

MUSIC NOTES: Great Big Sea looks forward to WNY gigs

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Great Big Sea stands atop the field of Celtic rock bands after 20 years in existence. They are legends in their native Canada, and equally revered by Celtic music lovers worldwide. They accomplished this by embracing the music of their homeland, Newfoundland and Labrador, and by establishing themselves as a premier live act.

The band is coming to town for two intimate performances at Seneca Niagara Casino’s Bear’s Den in Niagara Falls Tuesday and Wednesday.

“It’s a great little venue, a bit off our beaten path, but it’s a great little room from an artistic standpoint,” said Great Big Sea’s Bob Hallett during a recent phone interview. “We wanted to tape some stuff on this tour, and it gives us an opportunity to do that. We are playing two nights so we can run through our entire repertoire.”

The band has been celebrating their 20th anniversary all year, and touring in support of the aptly named album “XX” which features a cross-section of previously released pop, traditional folk and new recordings.

“We have been doing a lot of material on this tour we haven’t done for a long time and may not do again for a long time. When we saw (the Bear’s Den) on our itinerary we realized it was a great opportunity for us. We are excited to do it.”

Hallet and Great Big Sea paved the way for other Celtic rock bands like Flogging Molly, Dropkick Murphys and Enter the Haggis.

“We’ve inspired a thousand pub bands to take up the fiddle,” Hallet joked.

Before Hallet decided on music as a career, he pursued a career in journalism.

“When journalism looked like a viable career, I pursued an English degree, and then that morphed into what was called public affairs, which is called public relations now. The whole time I was doing that I was in bands and I was staying up late. I was up until 3 a.m. and then I had to get up the next morning to edit the TV listings. I bet there were a lot of errors, I probably would have been a better editor if I had been a lousy musician,” Hallet said.

When it came time to decide whether to be a professional musician, Hallet never looked back.

“When I was a kid I lived in a much more isolated place, and traveling was a huge goal. In Newfoundland, being a musician was considered an absurd ambition. We might as well have said we were going to become professional wrestlers. Professional musicianship was an adjunct to being a fireman or other job. The idea that we have been able to do it as a living, much less for 20 years, that’s the career highlight. It never ceases to amaze me.”

Great Big Sea’s success story is far from typical.

“If you want to rock star you don’t pick up an accordion. The fact we were able to establish ourselves in Canada, then Europe, America and Australia with our niche was quite a surprise to us. It wasn’t the old way where you had a radio hit and then developed a following, we established ourselves as a great live act. Built a following and the radio airplay and other stuff came afterward. We knew we could stand in front of an audience and make them love us.”

Hallett notes that other bands have followed the same model.

“The music business is always on a corporate trajectory, but there are artists that push back. We make very personal music, it’s not auto tuned or pre-programmed. A band like Mumford and Sons does the same thing, they are genuine and play their own instruments and know how to perform in front of an audience.”

Great Bug Sea’s genuineness doesn’t always require them to play any instrument at all.

“We sing a cappella quite a bit, and America associates that with barbershop and glee club stuff. What we do is the stuff we heard on the wharfs and the pubs when we were kids. It’s powerful and very masculine. The audience is always taken aback when they hear the five of us even if it is on the album. It’s genuine and that is part of our motto, being genuine and that has kept us around for 20 years.”

And it looks like they will be around for at least 20 more.

Thom Jennings writes a weekly column on the music scene for Sunday Lifestyle. Email him at